It always struck me as interesting that BTs struggle with the issue of conformity. After all, the fact that we have become BTs means that we are non-conformists to start with. We have bucked the philosophies, mores, trends and fads that we were brought up with in a manner that is often jolting if not shocking to our parents and friends. Rabbi Tatz in addressing teens thinking about rebelling says that Avraham Avinu was the biggest rebel, it was him against the world. Yet, in order to assimilate into the frum society that we, on the whole, have much in common with we feel the need to conform.
Conformity, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. There is a level of conformity necessary for proper functioning of any community. The problem arises when that conformity comes at the expense of individuality (See the earlier posts on integration) and when the conformity itself becomes what we view as making us “frum”. Rav Frand once spoke of the Spanish Marranos who, due to the extreme oppression, lived outwardly as Christians but led fully observant lives in their homes. He then spoke about modern day “Reverse Marranos” who on the outside look and act very frum but on the inside (this could be taken as the essence of the person or as meaning behind closed doors) they act like the rest of the world. This is one of the dangers presented by conformity.
Another danger presented by conformity arises when we view or characterize other Jews simply based upon their conformity in dress, speech or otherwise. After graduating college, I spent a little time in Eretz Yisrael. I was already shomer shabbos but still “finding my way” in terms of where I wanted to be in the world of yiddishkeit. One Friday night a friend and I davened at the Karliner Stoliner Yeshiva and we were quickly invited for dinner (really, the very reason we davened there) by this chasid with a long white beard and piercing crystal blue eyes. As we followed our host home down a tiny alleyway and through an old wooded door, we really didn’t know what to expect.
I could not remember a single thing that I ate at that meal but I vividly remember coming to the realization that this man, this very hospitable man, was a unique individual despite the fact that he looked and dressed just like most others who lived in his neighborhood. After dinner, we went to the tisch and though I had been to many tischen before, this was the first time that I looked around at the hundreds of Chasidim gathered thinking that each one is an entire world.
You are not your hat, your kippah, your suit, your tichel or your sheitel. Neither is your neighbor, your friend or your co-worker. While we live in a world that demands a certain level of conformity, we have to be careful not to make that conformity our world.